Pastoral Partners : Frederick W. and Ruth P.
On May 15, 1977, Frederick W. Cropp, a retired United Presbyterian pastor, and his wife, Ruth, were summing up the long years of fruitful service they had shared in God's ministry.
"I think we've been through it all with people, with our loved ones, our children, ourselves," Fred said. "We've known financial ups and downs, troubles and deaths within the family. We've learned how to suffer with our own parents. Even the deaths and tragedies in our lives have given us strength.
"No one has had more fun in life than Ruth and I have. We've had hilarious times. A sense of humor has permeated the whole thing.
"Paul said what I hope I can say, 'I have fought the good fight, I have finished the course, I have kept the faith.' "
Just before Christmas, Fred died of a sudden heart attack, the fifth in recent years. The San Marino Community Church in California, where he served as pastor from 1952
through 1966, was packed for his memorial service.
The Reverend Rick Thyne, present pastor of the prestigious church, assured the mourners that Fred had, indeed, finished his course with honor and kept the faith.
"When we think of him, we don't think of how he died, but of how he lived. And oh, how he lived!" said Thyne. He went on to describe Cropp, who distinguished himself in World War II service as a military chaplain, and who was general secretary of the American Bible Society from 1939 to 1956. "He was a genuine, thoughtful, sensitive person who knew us and took time for us," Thyne said.
Fred was well suited to be a pastor, though he only served one other church besides the one in San Marino: historic First Presbyterian Church of Wheeling, West Virginia.
"He turned pastoral calls into an art form," observed Thyne. And his little notes and brief letters, which he always penned in turquoise ink, came to be treasured by their many recipients as vessels of wisdom, information and, at times, not too gentle reminders.
Fred, who sent clippings and notes from his files far and near, never did learn the difference between an envelope and a wastebasket, according to his son, Fred III. Thyne mentioned that fact during the funeral service, causing subdued chuckles to ripple through the pews.
It was that kind of memorial service one which Fred Cropp would have enjoyed. In fact, he had planned the selection of hymns and passages of Scripture emphasizing the triumphant hope and joy of the Resurrection.
Those who knew Fred and know Ruth think of them for how they lived.
While both of them were living in the Samarkand retirement center in Santa Barbara, California, I spent several afternoons allowing them to distill the essence of nearly fifty years as a husband-and-wife ministry team. Truly, as Pastor Thyne said at Fred's memorial service,
"Fred and Ruth were almost one hyphenated word, not lost in each other, but found there, in a shared ministry."
Fred, a native of a little coal and steel town in Ohio, was the son of a Presbyterian elder. A graduate of the College of Wooster and Princeton Theological Seminary, he was ordained in 1929 and later received honorary degrees from three colleges.
Ruth Perkins, a native Georgian and daughter of a Presbyterian pastor, taught high-school English literature in New York state before she and Fred were married. They met at the College of Wooster, where Ruth also was graduated.
Both sets of parents were Christian. When Fred and Ruth were about age twelve, they each respectively joined the church. Their childhood and student days were free of notable crises.
"The first traumatic twenty-four hours I ever spent," recalled Fred, "was at the birth of our first son" (Frederick W. Cropp, III, now professor of geology at the College of Wooster). It was a difficult delivery. "The only time that I could pinpoint a direct word from God came then," said Fred. "I heard the Lord speak to me. He said, 'Frederick, it will be all right!' "
It was Ruth's turn to respond to my initial interview question: Once you became a Christian, what were the most trying or difficult events in your life?
She singled out five, three involving the deaths of close loved ones.
The first crisis, she said, was when she and Fred were forced to be apart during the four war years he served as military chaplain of III Corps in Europe. She had the care of their two small sons Fred III and Robert.
A spiritual resource that Ruth and Fred had developed
at the very outset of their marriage served her in good stead during those single-parent days.
"The fact that we established our family altar, our devotional period together, at the beginning of our married life was preventive maintenance," Ruth explained. "It was building us up and giving us strength to meet the things that were ahead of us. It was a special part of our daily schedule. Of course, it never occurred to us that we were going to have trials and tribulations."
When Fred was away, Ruth and Fred read the same passages in the New Testament on the same day. "I didn't feel I could begin the day without reading the Word," said Ruth. Every day, twice a day, Ruth read the Bible and a devotional thought to the boys and prayed with them.
Later, Ruth was selected as one of fifteen parents from the White Plains, New York, Parent-Teacher Association to be interviewed for a magazine article.
"How did you get through all of that?" asked the interviewer when Ruth told her about her experiences with the boys during the war.
"I couldn't have gotten through it if I hadn't gotten down on my knees at night and asked the Lord to forgive me for all the mistakes I'd made with the children," Ruth replied. "Then, before I got out of bed in the morning, I asked Him to help me through all of those problems."
The reporter put down her pencil and looked up at Ruth. "Do you believe all that?"
"Of course I do."
STRENGTH AND GUIDANCE FROM THE LORD
For the next few minutes Ruth found herself witnessing to the young reporter and counseling her. Ruth told how much her faith meant to her, and how the Lord had strengthened her and given guidance through prayer.
While Ruth was coping with the children stateside, Fred was overseas giving spiritual counsel to GIs. He received
the Bronze Star decoration and the Commendation Ribbon and became vice-president of the Military Chaplains' Association.
In 1943, during the Battle of the Bulge, there was grim going for Fred, whose unit was under fire.
"I was a chaplain, of course," Fred began, as if he were telling a war story (which, in a way he was) "and I was supposed to be dishing out this stuff. I felt I had to at least keep ahead of the troops on the inner braces of life."
Fred did. A major source of inspiration, which he passed on to his men, was the devotional book Five Minutes a Day by Robert E. Speer, the late secretary of the Board of Foreign Missions of the Presbyterian Church. The book, reprinted in paperback, fall 1977, by Westminster Press was a classic in its day and was handed out to all United States military chaplains.
At the time Fred was serving in the European theatre, Ruth's younger brother, James H. Perkins, was a chaplain in Guam. He contracted a disease there and died a lingering death at forty-two, though he came back to the states and held a pastorate. He continued preaching, though he grew weaker, until he finally went to the hospital for six weeks.
But he got up and left the hospital on Easter morning to preach his sermon, "The Glory of the Resurrection." After the service he returned to the hospital and slipped into a coma from which he only temporarily recovered two days before his death.
"Each of us had a few minutes with him then and he was 'clear as a bell,' " Ruth recalled gratefully. "To see him face death like that was strengthening to us."
Interjected Fred: "When you go into a sick room, you get more help than you give, many times."
Another heartache for Fred and Ruth was the slow death by cancer of their daughter-in-law, Helen, Fred III's wife. The mother of four young children, Helen died gal-
lantly. According to the Cropps, "The nurses told us she taught them how to live and die."
The third loved one whose death Ruth considered a difficult time was her beloved mother, Mrs. Frederick (Bertie Carol) Perkins, who lived for years with Fred and Ruth in San Marino. Though she had been delirious until just before she died, Mrs. Perkins passed on peacefully at age eighty-one.
The Cropps feel most Christians are not prepared to face the reality of death. Rather, they tend to avoid it by blocking it out.
"They deny it," said Fred. "Then life caves in on them and they are caught without any preparation at all. They wonder, 'Why has the Lord done this to me?' when the Lord hasn't done it at all. They should have been taught to pray that the Lord would give them strength to go through whatever lay ahead of them."
Not that Fred disparaged seeking help even in the eleventh hour of need. At another time, he said:
"When life tumbles in, people want a human voice to speak to them, a human ear to listen to their troubles. They need to know that the pastor himself, and his wife, are persons who, in confidence hear them, and hear them out, and know what they are up against and can help them.
"Call your minister when you have need; he'll come out even if it interferes with home life, if it's a real need."
The Cropps, no strangers to suffering, have devoted much thought and prayer to its meaning and mystery.
"But why does God send this to me?" Fred once wrote in the bulletin of the San Marino Community Church.
"If God is good why does He let this happen to anyone?"
"Look what God has done to me!
"In the wake of every personal or group tragedy, these are the words which come quickly to our minds and as quickly to our lips.
"What is the best thing to say?
"We are not willing to accept John Calvin's observation that God's will is so far above man's ability to understand that it is inscrutable. We want a better answer than that.
"The least 'dusty answer' I know is based on what a famous English preacher of 100 years ago said. Frederick W. Robertson observed that there are three principles at work in weaving the warp and woof of our lives. They are apparently incompatible and self-contradictory, yet we observe and believe that all three are at work."
"The first is that 'there is a Divinity that shapes our ends, rough-hew them how we will.' God is sovereign and God is good, and we are in the hands of the Father who not only cares but has a plan for our lives," Fred continued.
"The second principle is that our fate is in our own hands. We do decide which way our souls go and our blessedness and our misery are the results of our own choices and our actions.
"The third principle is that there are accidents. 'Time and chance happeneth to them all.'
"The next time you question, look at these three elemental principles. Which one can you see most clearly? Are not the other two involved?
"Then and this is most important of all what is your reaction? What are you going to do about it? Where do you go from here?
"The problem has baffled everyone. The answering reaction of a Christian calls for trust and heroism."
Fred himself was forced to ask why. Several years later
when he suffered the first of a series of heart attacks that mandated a much restricted schedule and diet. That was a crisis both for Fred, who had to give up preaching, because of stress, and for Ruth, who sat beside him during each heart attack.
"It was a traumatic thing to give up preaching it was a part of my life," admitted Fred, but without complaint. "The Lord gave us grace to live with the heart attacks and through them all fear of death is gone."
Fred was ready, then, when his appointment with the last enemy came early on the morning of December 22, 1977. Ruth rode with him in the ambulance to the hospital, where he expired.
Never too old to find and apply new truth, Fred characteristically followed up our interview with a note in turquoise ink and a clipping from the London Times. Fred commented that in the article he had discovered a new word orthopraxy.
"Orthopraxy (right-acting)," said the article, is just as important as orthodoxy (right-thinking); and is indeed a condition of it."
"Orthopraxy," wrote Fred, "joined with orthodoxy, makes for a good life in the Spirit. Ruth and I have been trying to say that our life's goal has been a wedding of these two."
Beyond doubt, Ruth and Fred were adept at combining right thinking and right acting in the Spirit because they drew so heavily from the whole arsenal of available spiritual resources.
THE THINGS THAT HELP
First and foremost, they listed the Scriptures unadorned. That means straight Bible reading, Fred explained, adding, however, that the reading of new versions and translations brings new light to the Old Word. "The Scriptures have answers to every crisis and problem
that occurs," said Fred, the one-time Bible society secretary.
Commentaries and devotional literature also are useful, the Cropps said. Volumes of such material fill whole shelves in the Cropp apartment at Samarkand. Turning to a shelf of books by the British Methodist, Leslie Weatherhead, Fred told me how much they had meant to him, particularly his House of Prayer.
Fred said he had read John Baillie's classic, Diary of Private Prayer, once a year for twenty years. And he and Ruth read and reread David Mace's Whom God Hath Joined. Fred gave copies to couples whom he married.
Fred also turned frequently to the great poets Browning and Milton "They have always fed me."
Other favorites include the works of mystic Evelyn Underhill, psychiatrist Paul Tournier, British apologist C. S. Lewis, Scottish Bible commentator William Barclay, and William Saroyan, known for penning, "Tomorrow we will make strength out of this sorrow."
Ruth added These Days, a Presbyterian daily devotional guide, and Covenant Companion, a paper put out by the Evangelical Covenant Church. She also reads Christian Herald, A.D., and Presbyterian Outlook.
But the most help to her, other than the Bible, is Weatherhead's paperback The Will of God.
For decades, the Cropps followed the practice of rising before 7 A.M. in order to have devotions together before breakfast. "We got our marching orders for the day," said Ruth. "We used the Presbyterian Mission Yearbook of Prayer so that our hearts and minds and eyes were on the entire world before we had breakfast."
Another valued source of strength and help to the Cropps: the fellowship of other Christians and fellow ministers and their wives. A minister's life can be lonely even though he's almost constantly with people, Fred pointed out.
Ruth and Fred also felt strongly that public worship is an important resource for the Christian, in good times and bad.
"There's something in every service that gets to me," said Fred. "It may be the hymns, Scripture, or the architecture of the church. Regularity in worship is so necessary. It's a discipline a self-discipline we can't force on people."
Closely allied to worship is praise " practicing the presence of God."
"Praise," according to Ruth, "means getting up in the morning asking for strength from on high." But, she cautioned, "Don't say, 'Praise the Lord!' when you're struck down. Don't praise Him for that. Pray, thanking Him for His presence and help in the midst of the problem. That's how you praise God!"
"Christians get mugged and beaten," added Fred. "Paul was fighting the battle all his life. But he fought the fight and kept the faith. We've lived joyous lives with a sense of humor and adventure."
To Fred and Ruth, that's part of praise to realize that life isn't funny, but that you can bear it if you have the gift of Christian good humor and laughter.
Although it may seem paradoxical to consider tithing a resource for Christians, overcomers like the Cropps find it so.
Both Fred and Ruth were reared in poor homes, but they always tithed. And for many years of their ministry, they said they over-tithed.
During Depression days, Fred confided, scraping up the first 10 percent was jolly difficult. In fact, they often had to borrow from the Lord's money during months that had thirty-one days. When that happened, they would
simply write out an I. O. Thee to God until they could pay it back.
Fred warned that they were not advocating tithing because it makes you rich. "A fallacy," he said, "is the thinking of quid pro quo Christians those who figure that if you do this, you'll get that.
Rather, to the Cropps, though tithing may bring financial blessings, the real benefit is the harvest of joy and the sense of worth that comes from being partners with God and ministering to His people.
Speaking of storing up resources, the Cropps lamented that many of their contemporaries had not deposited too much faith or church relatedness.
This, they warned, leads to spiritual poverty and emptiness: "It's like a bank; you have to make deposits to build up interest."
Expounded Fred: "So many answers are not 'instant'; you just seldom get stabs of revelation if you haven't practiced the presence of God. It's never too late but you have to take a kind of crash course in spiritual things bone up for finals if you haven't been making deposits regularly."
Using another analogy, Fred spoke about the Bible story in which a cast-out unclean spirit takes seven other spirits and enters into an empty man (see Matthew 12:43-45). "A vacuum may occur at the very point of conversion," Fred interpreted. "Christ theoretically fills a heart and life and He does. But you need to entertain Him every day otherwise He is gone.
"It's like coming to a deep well, but you have nothing to draw with. The Christian life is a process as well as an experience and it continues."
Fred said he was a steady person and that it was not usual for him to have peaks and valleys in his spiritual pilgrimage. Ruth related that she was more apt to have what she called concerns. Asked to elaborate, she said,
"You know, the intuitive feelings of a mother the need for assurance that all is well."
Fred broke in that he could always tell when Ruth was concerned, because she knelt longer in prayer that night.
Surprised to know that he was sensitive to that, Ruth rejoined: "After casting my burdens on the Lord I can get in bed and go to sleep. That may sound simplistic, but it's worked for me all these years."
OUT OF THE DAILY DOLDRUMS
When daily doldrums do encroach upon the Cropps' tranquility and inner peace, there's nothing like doing something to help someone else to lift them out of depression, they found.
"In helping others through their problems, my anxieties have disappeared," remarked Ruth. "Or put them in focus or perspective," inserted Fred.
Another way to overcome depression is to wait and listen instead of talk, the Cropps suggested. "Watch Christ in prayer and imitate Him."
While Fred and Ruth said they did not think it would be necessary for those reading this book to have had the same experiences they did in order to benefit from the spiritual lessons they learned, they did say that example and experience are good teachers.
"After experiencing death in our own families, we did a better job of helping others with this experience," noted Fred. "Until you know that what you're talking about works, you don't see it from the same perspective or have the strength to work it out."
"You don't need to have had the same experiences, but you need someone to help you deal with your difficulties," added Ruth.
The transference of Christian faith and the power of the Holy Spirit can take place by osmosis, according to Fred. "Seeing me calm in a threatening situation during the
war, men would ask, 'Chaplain, what have you got that I haven't got?' I would try to tell them in a few words. My testimony is for people to see how I'm living, though I need to say it, too, in words."
As our second interview ended, Fred and Ruth showed me a few of the many mementos grateful parishioners had given them. There was a portrayal of the Lord's Supper with brass figures from the choir. There also was a decoupaged, engraved Bible, open to 1 Corinthians 13, Paul's famed passage on Christian love, from a youth.
"You have to have discipline all through your life," Ruth was saying, returning to a repeated theme. "Mentally, materially first things first. The devotional life first. I learned that lesson early in life when I was alone without my sky pilot and I had to get my vitamins for the day and give them to the boys, too."
"Eternity and the present life are all of one piece," Fred summed up.
Seven months later Fred's words echoed in my mind as I sat in the church where he had so often preached. This time, it was Rick Thyne, paying final tribute to a great man of the faith:
"Many of us believe in Christ, but few of us obey. Fred believed in Jesus Christ and obeyed Him, and loved Him. He had an impact on many lives because of that.
"Oh, how he lived. He took every gift of God and lived it all the way out to the edges.
"We give him back to You, O God with significant reluctance."
Chapter Eleven || Table of Contents